ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A California bill to ban single-use plastic bags died on the last day of legislative session (August 31) without coming to a vote. But that didn’t faze the 50 or so cities and counties in the state that had already passed local restrictions.
Representatives from both cities, and the consulting firm that advised them, gave a presentation at the American Public Works Association's recent International Public Works Congress and Exposition in Anaheim.
The two cities approached the issue in different ways, but accomplished the same goal. Santa Monica’s plastic bag ordinance, which went into effect in 2011, shared a common interest with locals and tourists in keeping the beaches and ocean litter-free. The neighboring city of Los Angeles, which approved a similar ordinance in May, is set to become the largest city in the nation restricting single use plastic bags. And in the county’s unincorporated areas, the ban is already in place as of last year.
About 350 miles north, Sunnyvale’s Silicon Valley location is headquarters for Yahoo! and other tech companies. It’s also a forward-thinking city when it comes to trash. City administrators are drafting a zero-waste policy they plan to bring to council later this year.
The city also shares a border with San Jose, which passed an ordinance that went into effect on Jan. 1, the same day as the county’s mandate. The first phase of Sunnyvale’s ordinance followed on June 20, affecting grocery, drug, liquor and convenience stores in addition to all large stores 10,000 square feet or more, or generating more than $2 million a year. The second phase affects all remaining retailers, who have until next spring to comply.
A city’s financial reason for banning plastic bags
There’s a practical reason for Sunnyvale to restrict stores within the city’s boundaries from distributing plastic bags. The city owns a processing facility that sorts and transfers recyclables, including recovering them from garbage.
One of the city's motivations for the ban is that the plastic bags were clogging the recycling machinery, said Mark Bowers, solid waste programs division manager for the Environmental Services Department.
Specifically the trommels, a pair of 70-foot-long rotating drums at the facility, have holes in the screens designed to sort material by allowing certain materials to pass through. When garbage enters the trommels, the plastic bags clog the holes. This led to expensive down time and increased maintenance costs, said Bowers.
The bags are also “escape artists,” he said, aerodynamic and blowing away at the transfer stations.
“We literally had waste-deep snow drifts of plastic bags,” he said, when a newspaper photographer visited the transfer station to shoot pictures.
While post-consumer plastic bags are believed to be recyclable, Bowers said it’s difficult to do so because ”bags that have passed through the hands of consumers are contaminated with paper receipts, moisture, crumbs, food waste...”
He also learned that grocery stores were collecting the bags by law, but tossing them.
“Our surveys of the stores required by AB 2449 (a state law about to sunset) to provide bag recycling collections found that many of the smaller stores also could not market the collected bags,” he said. “They just went straight into the dumpster behind the store and ended up in a garbage truck.”
And Sunnyvale’s own processing facility does not recycle plastic bags.
“Our recycling center is unable to market the relatively clean bags dropped off by residents, so we no longer accept bags,“ he said.
The volume of plastic bags and plastic film that are recycled is low. In the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the statistic is about five percent. But Bowers said the recycled plastic is pre-consumer, such as shrink wrap on shipping pallets and manufacturing waste. He believes less than one percent of post-consumer bags are actually recycled nationwide.
Plastic industry - friend or foe?
With about 50 municipalities in California restricting single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers, the nonprofit Environment California estimated about one-third of the state’s population would be impacted once the regulations all go into effect.
Statewide estimates suggest 19 billion single-use carryout bags are used annually. Santa Monica estimated the city accounted for 26 million plastic bags per year, while Sunnyvale calculated more than 75 million per year. Both cities estimate paper bags and reusable bags will replace the need for plastic bags, according to their Environmental Impact Reports.
The plastic industry has not been absent in the process. Lobbyists and attorneys show up at the public meetings and aren’t hesitant to voice their opinions to city representatives.
“They have me on speed dial,” said Josephine Miller of the city of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.
In cities such as Portland, Maine, in the early stages of assembling an ordinance, plastics industry representatives attended a city subcommittee meeting on sustainability and energy, said Michael Bobinsky, director of public services.
“A few of them want to be part of the process,” he said, including serving on committees. “So on one hand I see that as a positive.”
And they’re not the only industry that wants to be heard.
“The retailers’ association of Portland, Maine, wants to be involved and do the right thing,” he said.
On the other hand, municipalities have had negative experiences dealing with industry attorneys. The plastic industry’s Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has sued or tried to sue municipalities in California, including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach, Carpinteria, and the counties of Los Angeles and Santa Clara.
Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County negotiated a lawsuit settlement with the plastic’s coalition over its unincorporated areas. A scaled down version of the ordinance was passed instead. Now the county is considering reinstating part of the original regulation, which includes restaurant takeout bags. An hour’s drive north, a court decision is anticipated soon in a lawsuit by the California Restaurant Association against the city and county of San Francisco.
Both Santa Monica and Sunnyvale exempt restaurants and food service establishment from the ordinance. In the case of Santa Monica, only takeout bags for the transportation of food is allowed.
Both cities also worked with Matthew Maddox, a senior program manager for Rincon Consultants, to draft an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Although an EIR is not mandatory, Maddox said the two cities took conservative measures to prevent a lawsuit.
“For larger cities, basically cities with a population greater than 30,000, an EIR has been almost necessary because of the threat of a lawsuit from groups such as the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition,” he said.
The city of Palo Alto, home to Stanford University, will prepare an EIR in order to extend its ordinance to all retailers and restaurants, not just grocery stores as it did in 2009. According to the Palo Alto Daily News, the EIR is required as part of a settlement with the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition.
The alternative to an EIR is a simpler document under the California Environmental Quality Act called a Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration, according to Maddox.
Green Cities California, with 12 member cities, including Santa Monica, shared one Master Environmental Assessment, a comprehensive study on leading-edge research required with the EIR.
Sharing the cost of the Master Environmental Assessment provided more money for other expenditures, said Josephine Miller, who enforces the plastic bag ordinance from her position as environmental analyst for the city of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.
Budgeting for marketing, materials and reusable bags
Hearing the criticisms from plastic industry representatives about taking away jobs, she invested in 26,000 reusable bags from the Green Vets LA program, which employs homeless and low-income vets to sew the navy blue cloth bags.
“When we set out to purchase reusable bags we tried to source them locally, using sustainable materials, etc.," Miller said. "Our collaboration with Green Vets LA for the manufacture of the bags was a dream come true. Not only did we fulfill our objective for procuring the highest in quality and durability, but we contributed to the objectives of our Sustainable City Plan, a plan that includes goals for human dignity and economic development. That we met our objectives while fueling job training and rehabilitation of our veterans at the same time was unbelievable.
“Ninety percent of those vets were homeless on the streets,” said Miller. “And they now have jobs.” The cloth bags, she added, had to be durable enough to last for 20 years. They were made out of scrap material from L.A.’s garment district.
Other funds were saved by using local community members to model the reusable bags in marketing photos used on the sides of recycling trucks. The images were produced in-house, said Miller. Other municipalities have saved money by using her documents as templates.
In Sunnyvale, the city council appropriated $100,000, according to Mark Bowers, solid waste programs division manager for the Environmental Services Department. Nearly half was spent on the preparation of the EIR. The remaining was spent on several thousand reusable bags made in San Francisco from recycled fabric. The bags are distributed at promotional events.
Stores affected by the ordinance received signage such as “Did you remember your bags” reminders. Bowers said he expects to have funds remaining should the city council decide to ban polystyrene next.
Implementation, enforcement and changing consumer behavior
There are slightly different versions of the plastic bag ordinance depending on the municipality, but for the most part, the concept is the same.
Grocery stores and retailers are prohibited from distributing plastic bags at the register. They are allowed to charge a dime for a paper bag with at least 40 percent post-consumer content. Or offer reusable bags for sale.
"You would be surprised, but many grocery store owners favor the bag bans," said Bowers. "'I'm going to save $3,000 a month’,” he said quoting one grocer.
The bigger obstacle lies in changing consumer behavior and expectations.
“'What do mean you're not going to give me a free plastic bag’,” some customers say. And the checkers are on the front lines.
"The checkers are really important people in this issue," said Bowers. “Tell them its Mark's fault,” he tells them. “Blame me.”
Miller says when customers are mad at the checkers, they hand them her card.
After going into effect, the ordinances often have a grace period before the municipality hands out fines. But there aren’t enough city staff allocated to enforcement. Calls and emails from the public provide tips as to which merchants are not in compliance.
“So I’ll get a call from a community member,” said Miller, “and we’ll work it out (with store managers) within 24 hours.” Miller is Santa Monica’s only city staff who enforces the plastic bag ordinance for 1,875 retail outlets, in addition to the 2007 polystyrene ordinance, which affects restaurants.
The city of Sunnyvale does not allocate staff to enforce its plastic bag ordinance, said Bowers. Out of about 125 retailers, most are food and beverage establishments, then large supermarkets and department or big box stores.
Part of the accountability mechanism requires the stores to report quarterly or biannually on the number of paper bags sold. Sunnyvale will see its first quarterly report starting this October. However, the number of plastic bags diverted from the landfill will be harder to estimate. One paper bag sold does not equal one plastic bag saved. One paper could substitute for one-and-a-half plastic, according to a study favoring the plastics industry, since it holds more items. Bowers estimates the ratio is closer to one paper to three plastic.
Credits: other incentives for reducing plastic bags
When taking measures to meet California's trash reduction goals, implementing a plastic bag ordinance can earn credits. About 75 agencies and municipalities in the San Francisco Bay Area are regulated by the Municipal Regional Stormwater National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit System. They must reduce trash flowing into the storm sewer systems by 40 percent by 2014, 70 percent by 2017 and 100 percent by 2022.
These type of credits give municipalities another legitimate reason to ban plastic bags, said Maddox.